Stairs go from necessity to a blank canvas for creative home design – and the internet oohs and ahs


Home improvement

Also, what are “witches’ stairs” and were they really invented to allay fears of being bewitched?

Sheila Hooley Sheeran’s goldendoodle, Bugsy, climbs the painted stairs of her Chatham home.

Sheila Hooley Sheeran has always loved color. But when the South Florida native moved into a newly built Chatham home in 2015, she knew the plain wooden staircase near the back door didn’t exactly match her aesthetic.

“I wanted a sense of joy walking into that locker room,” said Hooley Sheeran, a meditation and yoga teacher and energy medicine practitioner. “I just wanted to be sparkled with joy the moment I walked in, so I wanted some color there.”

With the help of Marsha Malone of Nautique, an interior design firm and furniture boutique in Brewster, Hooley Sheeran enlisted an artist to transform the wooden staircase into a colorful place of self-expression . The artist spent three weeks painting the stairs, referencing the preppy colors found throughout the home’s interior and tying them to the vertical stripes that cascade down the stairs in a brilliant sheen. The same Kelly green is pulled from the back of the Great Hall bookcases, while a bold yellow stripe, taken from the chandelier that hangs above the stairs, is enhanced by surrounding lines of pink, navy and blue- Grey.

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“We pulled all the colors we were using throughout the house and replicated them to bring a fresh touch to a back stair hall,” Malone said. “It was like a dead space, but it was the door that everyone uses from the driveway when they come in. Now you see this beautiful staircase.”

Hooley Sheeran’s desire to infuse color and personality is an indication of the changing tide when it comes to stairs in the American home. Previously treated as purely functional, the integration of color and dimension into residential staircases is stronger than ever. The rise of Pinterest and TikTok has inspired homeowners who want to be a little bolder in their creative choices at home, painting stairs in ombre tones and gradients. This is a significant change from New England homes of the 1700s and 1800s, when some stairways were hidden by doors at the top and bottom. Then, of course, there were the steep stairs at the back of the houses designed for servants, so they could avoid contact with those they were hired to work for.

Stairs go from necessity to a blank canvas for creative home design - and the internet oohs and ahs
Previously treated as purely functional, the integration of color and dimension into residential staircases is stronger than ever. Adobe Stock

A particularly unusual phenomenon is “the witches’ staircase”, the nickname for designs with alternate steps that look like they were built with Legos. Although legend has it that they were given this name due to the belief that witches could not climb risers of different sizes, experts say this is most likely an urban legend.

“Historically, they come from practicality — instead of a ladder when space was tight,” said Richard Griswold, associate vice president and dean of students at Boston Architectural College. “Periodically, the feature is re-enabled in ongoing projects, usually to access an elevated sleeping area.”

Stairs go from necessity to a blank canvas for creative home design - and the internet oohs and ahs
“Witches’ stairs” were alternatives to ladders in old houses. Havana/Wikipedia Commons

These days, designers say that more subtle nods to color are also popular on stairs. Jess Harrington, owner and founder of JessFinessed, a Boston-area staging and interior design firm, recently had a staircase in a historic South End brownstone painted satin black.

“When we’re evaluating an older home that’s going on the market, painting, changing the lighting and refinishing the floors are the three things that provide good [return on investment]“, Harrington said. “You can take something dated and bring it closer to looking a bit more modern. I think the main thing is with the paint, it’s like you can paint over it. It’s so easy to experiment and change.

Lindy Lowney of Lindy Lowney Design in East Greenwich, RI cites both the financial and logistical benefits of painting the stairs. When converting a Newport multi-family home to a single-family property, she had the risers painted in shades of gray ombré, going from a deep charcoal hue at the bottom to mid grays. The result made the top, which had previously been a “boring” staircase for a second-floor apartment, “more spacious and less cave-like”.

“It’s a great solution for customers who don’t want to install treadmills on their stairs. It can be profitable to do some painting, and it’s not a huge commitment. It hides scuff marks with darker colors,” Lowney said. “It was a nice solution that didn’t cost a ton but gave a really nice look.”

Certainly, it’s not just residential spaces that channel the unique characteristics of stairs. At Paseo, a new commercial building in the seaport, a three-tiered wooden riser with steps serves as a gathering space where employees can drink coffee or work. Overhead, a suspended installation by Berlin artist Tomislav Topic titled “PARADE” is a collection of colorful meshes.

Stairs go from necessity to a blank canvas for creative home design - and the internet oohs and ahs

Yet preconceived notions of what a traditional staircase should look like limit some design decisions. Harrington said the initial reaction can often be “you can’t paint wood!”

“But these houses have been repainted over and over again, so it’s kind of like it’s just the next iteration to make them look good,” she noted. “Trends have changed, times have changed, but keep in mind that wood has traditionally been painted for good design for centuries.”

Megan Johnson can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to our free weekly real estate newsletter at Boston.com and follow us on Twitter @globehomes.



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